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Dan Moreland

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[PCT on the Road] Urban Rat Safari!

PCT on the Road

A Florida PMP takes a nighttime tour of New York City with famed rodentologist Bobby Corrigan to observe rats in their “natural” habitat.

April 24, 2015

Pest management professionals travel hundreds of miles every year to hear Bobby Corrigan speak at industry trade shows and educational events. They’re rarely disappointed. That’s because Corrigan is one of the world’s leading experts on designing complex control programs for city rats and mice, which are among the world’s most successful mammals. It’s a subject he embraces with an unbridled enthusiasm mirroring that of his longtime mentor, Dr. Austin Frishman, who is famous for admonishing his audiences “to think like a cockroach.”

And if there’s anyone who can help PMPs “to think like a rodent” to enhance their control programs, as a part-time research scientist for the New York City Department of Health responsible for managing the city’s multi-faceted rodent control efforts, Corrigan’s the man.

So when PCT magazine informed veteran PMP Joseph Flynn that he had been randomly selected to receive an all-expense-paid trip to “The Big Apple” to accompany Corrigan on a “Rat Safari” he was speechless, at least momentarily, wondering what on earth he would say to one of the pest management industry’s most iconic figures, a man who has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and earned a Ph.D. in rodent pest management from Purdue University.

“When I signed up the PCT Virtual Rodent Conference last summer, I didn’t even realize my name was automatically entered into the contest,” Flynn said. “I’ve always admired Bobby and I’ve heard him speak several times throughout my career so even though I didn’t know what to expect, I knew it would be a great experience.”

Top: As part of his all-expense-paid trip to the “Big Apple” sponsored by Bell Labs, PCO Joseph Flynn was booked at the historic Fitzpatrick Hotel.
Bottom: Prior to heading out for a nighttime rodent inspection of New York City, PMP Joseph Flynn (left) and rodentologist Bobby Corrigan (right) had dinner at The Smith Restaurant and Bar near Lincoln Center.

As it turns out, Flynn didn’t have anything to worry about. The two have much in common. Approximately the same age, Corrigan grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, while Flynn spent his formative years in Queens, the largest of New York City’s five boroughs. Both return home frequently to visit family and friends, while Corrigan spends a large portion of each month helping to design and update the city’s rodent control efforts, educating residents and city officials about the most effective IPM techniques for urban rodent control.

“Managing rodent populations in a city the size of New York is a daunting task, requiring a concerted effort utilizing a range of IPM techniques and requiring cooperation between various municipal agencies and city residents,” Corrigan says. “It’s a long-term effort with no easy, silver-bullet answers.”
 

A Homecoming.

Flynn’s trip to New York City as the winner of the “Rat Safari” Contest was a homecoming of sorts. As mentioned previously, the longtime PCO grew up in Queens before leaving the city to strike out on his own, eventually settling down in West Palm Beach, Fla., with his high school sweetheart, taking a job with a local pest control company to support himself and his new bride.

“I had just gotten married, so I needed to find something right away,” he recalls of those early years, responding to a help wanted ad for a local pest control service technician position.

It proved to be a good decision. After working several years for Pioneer Pest Control, a small, family-owned pest control business based in Lake Worth, Fla., Flynn set out on his own, forming Vulcan Pest Control in 1987, offering both general pest control and termite services. “The first few years were challenging, but there were a lot of New Yorkers on the East Coast of Florida and there’s a lot of pest pressure in the state, so we knew we would be successful,” he said.

In 2010, Flynn’s son Kevin joined the 14-person company, starting as a service technician and gradually rising through the ranks. “Kevin will likely take over the business one day,” Flynn said. “I’m already reducing my day-to-day involvement in the company,” in part, because of health issues that have slowed the 58-year-old Associate Certified Entomologist.

“I suffer from kidney disease so I don’t have quite as much energy as I once did,” he said, “but I still go out on jobs every day. Fortunately we have a lot of good people working at the company, so even though I’m not quite as active as I once was, we still get everything done that needs to get done.”
 

A Once-in-a-lifetime Experience.

Trash bags placed on the curb at the end of the business day provide a ready supply of food for rodents, complicating control efforts.

As the winner of the “Rat Safari” Contest, sponsored by Bell Laboratories, Flynn received complimentary airfare to New York City, transportation to and from the airport and overnight accommodations at the historic Fitzpatrick Hotel, a boutique property in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.

Upon arriving at New York’s bustling John F. Kennedy Airport on a warm August morning, Flynn was picked up by a limousine service and driven into the city, where he was welcomed by the hotel staff. As luck would have it, Flynn’s daughter, Lisa Liriano — a school teacher in Florida — was in New York attending a weeklong educational conference at Columbia University, so they were able to have lunch before the “Rat Safari” tour later that evening.

“It was a lucky coincidence she was in New York City at the same time I was so we could see each other,” Flynn said. “She was one of a select number of teachers from around the country who were invited to attend an educational conference at Columbia. It worked out well.”

Later in the day, PCT Publisher Dan Moreland drove into the city and met Flynn at his hotel, catching a cab to Lincoln Center where they joined Corrigan for dinner at The Smith Restaurant & Bar, giving everyone a chance to get acquainted.

During dinner, Corrigan learned that most of Flynn’s rodent business centers on roof rats, a sleek, agile rodent species common in South Florida. They are adept climbers that prefer to nest high off the ground in palm trees, along rooflines and in attics and lush vegetation.

“They’re a big problem in the West Palm Beach area,” Flynn said, “but if you understand their biology and behavior they can be controlled relatively easily. I enjoy solving roof rat problems for our pest control customers.”

“Since roof rats are secretive and elusive, they prefer to feed in areas with lush vegetation that provide dense cover,” Corrigan observed. “They’re not always readily visible to residents, allowing populations to go undetected for long periods of time.”

That’s not the case with Norway rats, which like the human residents of this bustling 250-square-mile urban center, have adapted readily to city life and the constant presence of people. As a result, they tend to be more gregarious than their reserved southern cousins.

“Despite our dislike of this animal and the long war against it since its arrival in the United States in the 1770s, the Norway rat still persists and thrives in most metropolitan areas, particularly in ports of entry like New York City,” Corrigan said.

Following dinner, with the sun setting behind the massive skyscrapers of the New York City skyline, Corrigan and Flynn walked up Broadway as office workers headed home after a long day of work. “Once the sun goes down and we get away from the areas frequented by pedestrians, you’ll see rodent activity increase, although signs of rodent activity are always present,” Corrigan said, pointing to gap around a utility line in a nearby building and the ever-present rodent “grease marks” near those openings to make his point.

Descending into the New York Subway System a few minutes later, we caught a train to Tribeca, an upscale neighborhood made famous by actor Robert De Niro’s American Express commercials and home to the world-renowned Tribeca Film Festival. “I saw Woody Allen come out of that restaurant one day,” Corrigan said matter-of-factly as we passed a series of former industrial buildings converted into high-end commercial properties with luxury apartments above.

“Tribeca has become a very desirable place to live. When these neighborhoods are rehabbed they often displace the local rodent population, resulting in a brief spike in rodent activity,” he said. “That’s often when the city begins receiving calls to knock down the population. Up until that point, the rodents are often out-of-sight, out-of-mind for most residents.”

From the Tribeca neighborhood, we headed over to Corrigan’s office in the New York County Municipal Building, located in picturesque Foley Square in lower Manhattan, which is also home to the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse and the New York Supreme Court, both familiar landmarks to fans of Law & Order (the actors trekked up and down the steps of the New York Supreme Court virtually every episode).

“They’re constantly shooting TV shows and movies just outside my window,” Corrigan said. “Just a little while back, actor John Lithgow was shooting a scene for something; it keeps life interesting.”

Bobby Corrigan illuminates several rats in a New York City park as PCO Joseph Flynn looks on.

After picking up a high-powered flashlight, clipboard, bump cap and bright orange safety vest at his office, we headed over to one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York City, Chinatown, within comfortable walking distance of Foley Square.

“If you look official, people typically don’t stop and ask you questions,” Corrigan said with a laugh. “It’s amazing how much credibility a clipboard and bump cap can give you!”

Before leaving Foley Square, Corrigan pointed out the Court of International Trade, the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, and the African Burial Ground National Monument, one of Manhattan’s most sacred spaces, constructed when an ancient African-American burial ground was discovered during construction of the federal office building in 1991.

After walking several blocks, and with nightfall now upon us, we approached a small municipal park in Chinatown filled with people playing board games and socializing with friends. “Oftentimes, the local residents of an area have little idea to the intensity of the rats in the immediate area around them,” Corrigan said.

To make his point, Corrigan trains his flashlight at a series of rocks and large shrubs just a few feet away from a gentleman sitting on a large rock on the edge of the park. And sure enough, several juvenile rats scurry under some nearby foliage as Corrigan’s flashlight illuminates the area around them, startling the rodents like convicts attempting to escape the confines of their prison when a spotlight suddenly foils their plans.

“That’s a juvenile that has been in a fight recently with a more dominant male,” he said. “You can see by the fresh wounds on his back. Rats are just like people, they want to live in the best neighborhoods. And in this park, the area over here is the best neighborhood; it’s the closest to a variety of food sources so the dominant rats fight for this coveted piece real estate. The weaker males are relegated to other sections of the park.”

Corrigan said it’s an ongoing challenge to achieve a goal of total elimination of rodents from big-city parks. In part, that’s because there will always be some people who litter tidbits of food onto sidewalks and park benches. In addition, each night restaurants — much like the rest of us — place out their garbage for collection. “As every pest professional knows, when there are competing food sources associated with a rodent infestation, it makes rodent control extremely difficult, even in some cases impossible,” Corrigan said. “It’s a smorgasbord.”

Corrigan says the city does its best to eliminate food sources and ensure proper sanitation practices by local residents, but it’s an uphill battle. “New York is an old city with a lot of old buildings and an aging infrastructure, so rats and mice have access to everything they need to survive (food, water, shelter), despite the city’s best efforts. It’s hard to keep rodent populations in check.”

In fact, he said, “There are likely Norway rat populations in this neighborhood that are the direct descendants of the first rats to enter the United States. You have to understand that New York is a port city. Like many of our structural pests, rodents were brought to the United States from other parts of the world, in the Norway rat’s case from the far East.”
 

Cryptobiotic Mammals Often Escape Detection

Many of the rodents — especially the commensal rodents — are cryptobiotic animals. This means they possess a biology and behaviors that are “secretive.” Rats and mice are active at night, utilize secluded, hidden or inaccessible areas as harborages, and are attracted toward darkened or shadowy areas during activity periods. Additionally, the cryptobiotic nature of these pests is accentuated by their quick movements in response to possible danger and their habit of remaining close to their harborage.

Rodents quickly scurry for nearby cover when they detect vibrations and/or movements which enable them often to escape capture or detection. It is common for clients to state “they thought they saw something scurry out of the corner of their eye, but when they looked, it was gone.” Thus, rodents often remain undiscovered by people until their numbers increase. In part, it is this cryptobiotic behavior that is responsible for the public to often perceive that these pests seemingly appeared “from outta nowhere.” Examples of other cryptobiotic pests in urban areas include bats, cockroaches, carpenter ants, silverfish and termites. – Bobby Corrigan


 

The Final Stop.

With the city now quieting down as residents prepare for bed, we once again head underground, descending into one of New York’s oldest subway stations, a short walk from the Financial District, a far different experience from the Times Square and Midtown Manhattan subway stops, where tourists and theatergoers keep things buzzing until the wee small hours of the morning.

The final stop of the nighttime tour was a visit to the New York City Subway System to illustrate how subways are, in fact, not the great rat havens some people think.

But this subway station is a much different story, with only a few locals patiently waiting for a train as Corrigan and Flynn walk down a flight of stairs to the stark, concrete platform. As they get halfway down the steps, Corrigan suddenly stops and says, “Look over there!” Sure enough, a lone rat briefly looks up from the end of the platform, before methodically sniffing the ground in front of him — moving from side to side — in search of his next meal.

“Rats aren’t as big a problem in the subway system as people think,” Corrigan observes, viewing this brief encounter as a teachable moment. “Some people think that because the subways contain dark, mysterious tunnels, the tunnels contain some type of secret underground populations,” he said. “But this is mostly a myth. That’s because food and water sources are typically more readily available at the surface level than down in the train tunnels. There’s not much of an incentive for large numbers of rodents to spend their days in the subway system.

“The one exception is a homeless person will sometimes bring food down into the subway and attempt to hide it in some tunnel alcove here and there. Of course, the rats follow their noses to these caches of food. If the homeless remain in the same hidden nook for a prolonged period of time, the rats can be expected to move into the same areas for easy feeding,” Corrigan added. “These rats may become residents of that area and be seen on a regular basis by the daily commuters waiting for their trains. They may see the same rat or a few rats over and over for weeks, but have the impression it’s a large population of rats and not just the same few.”

With that, the rat briefly looks back in our direction and quickly exits the platform, disappearing into the tunnel to do whatever rodents do as night falls in “The Big Apple.”

 

Urban Rodent Populations Fluctuate

The Norway rat has adapted well (too well) to urban environments where food, harborage and water are readily available. Consequently, humans have been fighting rats in our major cities since the time the rats were first introduced in the United States.

The older cities, particularly in the East, such as New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Boston and Baltimore, likely contain the oldest and perhaps most entrenched Norway rat infestations. In these cities, local newspapers and residents often use the estimate of “one rat for every person.” There is no basis in fact, however, for whether these are under- or over-estimates of the true populations.

Nevertheless, during the past decade many cities are claiming that rat and mouse populations are exploding. And it may be rodent populations are, in fact, increasing in urban areas. But it is difficult to claim an increase or a decrease in specific urban rodent populations when accurate baseline data doesn’t exist. For all practical purposes it is impossible to estimate and track urban rodent populations with any type of scientific accuracy. Newspaper articles have increased the estimated New York City rat populations, for example, from one, to six, to nine rats per person in the last 20 years. Yet, one recent estimate from a student study involving 311 complaint calls placed the estimate at 2 million rats.

It is probably safe to say there are several million rats and mice co-existing with us in larger urban centers throughout the U.S. What is true is that some areas of every city and town have more rodents than other areas, just as some buildings may have more rodents living in them than other buildings nearby.

The severity of a local infestation and the long-term residency of a rat colony depends on food abundance and availability, as well as access to sufficient harborage sites to construct nests. Many cases currently exist of pest professionals trapping several hundred rats out of basements and wall areas of stores and shops connected along just one city block, and failing thereafter to ever achieve or sustain “zero rats” despite their best efforts.

Still, whether or not a particular Norway rat population is truly increasing or is merely being displaced and shifted into areas previously un-infested would require a fair amount of scientific investigation.

A few of the more significant factors that affect rat population abundance and fluctuations and/or sudden mass dispersal include: 1) recurring mild winters; 2) environmental extremes (e.g., droughts, floods, etc.); 3) urban sprawl into wooded, farmland or undeveloped shoreline areas; 4) demolition and reconstruction of buildings and old utility systems (sewers and drainage systems); 5) municipal refuse and waste management operations (garbage collection practices, schedules and frequencies; sewer maintenance; etc.); 6) increases in new suitable rat habitats (e.g., shopping centers in gentrified sections of the city); 7) cutbacks in city rat control budgets and programs; and 8) incomplete and insufficient control programs implemented by laypersons relying solely on over-the-counter baits.

Perhaps we as a species need to ask ourselves whether or not we are truly serious about trying to exterminate rats from our cities and towns. City governments the world over are well known for being constrained by tight budgets. The buying public doesn’t help by constantly selecting the lowest bid among contracted pest management professionals. Such efforts keep our rat and mouse populations “simmering” with occasional “boil overs” as a result of the dynamic factors listed above.

In urban areas where rat habitat is ideal, the rat populations may grow to the point of overcrowding. This forces some of the rats to seek out other available spaces nearby. When various utility lines and systems connect buildings in a particular block, a constant stream of dispersing rats into connected areas nearby can occur.

If these areas have recently exterminated previous rats, the new rats, of course, find the “vacancy sign” lit. Unless the source of these infestations are identified and eliminated via environmental management as the primary thrust and/or the affected buildings are made completely 100 percent rat-proof, this cycle will repeat itself for many years. — Bobby Corrigan


 

A Happy Ending.

With our mission of observing city rats in their “natural habitat” now accomplished, Corrigan turns to Flynn and says, “Have you seen enough?” Flynn nods yes and with that our urban rodent adventure ends, with all three of us boarding a train for mid-town Manhattan.

As we arrive back at the FitzPatrick Hotel, Flynn turns to Corrigan, extends his hand, and says, “Thanks for a great evening, Bobby, I really enjoyed it.”

“I did too,” Corrigan says. “Thanks for doing such a great job representing the industry. It is companies like yours that are the backbone of the industry.”

And with that Corrigan turns, clipboard in hand, bump cap in place, his orange safety vest gradually disappearing into the madding crowd of tourists and late-night revelers on Lexington Avenue.

The night is still young and there’s still much to be done before this urban “rodentologist” will sleep.


 

The author is publisher of PCT magazine.

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